Friday, July 16, 2010

McKinley James' Tuskegee Boogie

McKinley "Guitar Harp" James was born in Macon, GA in 1935. In 1937 he and his mother moved to Macon County, AL to be closer to relatives and work. As a boy McKinley saved the money he made picking cotton so he could buy his first guitar, which he paid $15 for to a man down the street who sold the family vegetables. His mother tired to teach him the basics, and a neighbor, Bo Bo Brown taught him to pick and use a bottleneck. McKinley began singing gospel in The Golden Four Quartet and joined The Wings of Victory two years later, where he sang and played guitar. From there he became a one-man band and played at local shows that ranged from jails to fish fries to weddings and funerals. "I was here, there and everywhere, just like Old MacDonald's farm," McKinley recalled with a laugh.

Then, in 1955, several well-known bluesmen including Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Jimmy Reed played in Tuskegee. McKinley was inspired to make a go at a blues career. Work was hard to find but he was able to get gigs singing 15 minute spots on local radio programs. In 1965, he joined a federal adult-education program and ended up playing "Tuskegee Boogie" at his class graduation party. He'd written the song in 1962 about Tuskegee's first black sheriff, Lucious Amerson and his personal war on public drunkenness. 

When the teachers saw how much the audience like the song, they decided to arrange a recording session in Columbus, GA which McKinley raised the $250 to pay for. He recorded "Tuskegee Boogie" and "Ain't Gonna Pick No Cotton" which were released as a 45 on the Tomahawk label. McKinley strapped all 500 copies to his bicycle and rode around selling them for 50 cents each in Tuskegee, Notasulga and Opelika. In 1973 he recorded another 45 of "Misunderstanding" and "A Closer Talk" which was distributed locally, but neither record was picked up by a larger label. McKinley recorded again in Memphis, Houston and Nashville but the records were never pressed and the companies folded.

Despite that, McKinley became a prominent musician in the region and played many times at the Chattahoochee Folk Festival in Columbus, GA. He played for Alabama Governor George Wallace and Georgia Governor George Busbee in 1977, and for Alabama Attorney General, Charles Graddick in 1979. In 1981, he suffered a gunshot in his left lung at the hands of his girlfriend. He was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. In 1986, he was making a living collecting aluminum cans but hoping to be able to return to playing his "old time rock n' roll country blues".

Over the years, "Tuskegee Boogie" has remained popular with blues fans and is currently available on CD compilations such as Bama Bound: Alabama Blues Connection and Take A Greyhound Bus And Ride. 

While the original release of "Tuskegee Boogie" is near impossible to find, it was later reissued with the original B side, "Ain't Gonna Pick No Cotton", on a Macon records 45. For a limited time, the reissue is available on-line over at our friend's, 50 Miles of Elbow Room. It will set you back $8 plus shipping.  I assure you it's worth every penny. Check it out here

Listen to an excerpt from "Tuskegee Boogie" here
Listen to an excerpt from "Ain't Gonna Pick No Cotton" here

Biographical information on McKinley James was based on an article by Carol Robinson of the Birmingham News, published in Times-News of Hendersonville NC, December 28, 1986. The archived article is here

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